From the archives: Rob Ford, the TTC, and the crisis of legitimacy at Toronto City Hall

This post was originally written in March 2012. Not all of it holds up well, but the basic thesis I think bears repeating in light of recent events. I’ll have more to say later.

The news broke late yesterday that Toronto Transit Commission Chair Karen Stintz—who, it’s good to remind people, was a staunch ally of Mayor Rob Ford’s as recently as early February—will ask council to dissolve the current board of commissioners at the TTC and reconstitute a new board of seven members from council and open four spaces for private citizens with transit expertise. This is widely, and correctly, seen as a way of wresting power over the TTC from the Mayor’s closest allies and putting control of Toronto’s transit choices firmly in the hands of Toronto City Council.

In reaction to the news, conservative Stefan Baranski (former press secretary for the George Smitherman for Mayor campaign and since then a supporter of much of Rob Ford’s policies) tweeted a fair question that started a longer discussion than what I’m excerpting here:

@adamcf and @graphicmatt go immediately to the most obvious (and not incorrect) explanation for the current political situation: Rob Ford has himself to blame for the current situation, with his total inability to build any kind of majority coalition on council. Seeing as I’ve written the same elsewhere (and Stefan accepts it without seeming hesitation) this really does explain a lot of the problem. But not all of it.

That’s right: this isn’t all Rob Ford’s fault. The problem is actually a structural flaw in the way we’ve designed city council, and especially the powers given to the Mayor since 2006.

The problem at City Hall

A bit of background for people who haven’t spent the last little while neck-deep in the City of Toronto Act and other procedural documents: it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the office of the Mayor of Toronto, prior to 2006, was basically just a councillor that the whole city got to elect. He had substantial powers of persuasion and obviously retained an electoral mandate (so Mel Lastman ran on, and delivered, a tax freeze in the new amalgamated city of Toronto) but all the important decisions were made by council.

In 2006, as the Province of Ontario brought in the City of Toronto Act, the City’s procedural by-law was changed to give the Mayor new powers over council. One of the more important ones is the right of the mayor to name committee chairs (instead of letting committees do that on their own, or have council name them). This allows him to form the Executive Committee of his choosing (a cabinet of sorts) and keep control over the agenda in various committee to make sure nuisance items from the opposition don’t find their way to council. The Mayor also, alone among the individuals at council, can call a special session of council in his own authority to deal with matters. (Rob Ford has exercised this power when council threw up a roadblock, for example when opposition councillors denied him the 2/3 majority he needed to introduce a motion to fire the board of Toronto Community Housing.)

But some things didn’t change: the Mayor is still elected generally from the city (as opposed to councillors who are elected in 44 wards) and thus remains the only individual at City Hall with a city-wide mandate. Or, as we were incorrectly told when Rob Ford was elected, “he’s the politician who received the most votes in Canadian history.” (Factually incorrect: Mel Lastman got more votes in both of his elections than Rob Ford.)

While Rob Ford has pushed the idea of a Mayor’s mandate to absurd ends—”people voted for whatever my current political priority is this week, and I’m going to deliver what they voted for”—he didn’t invent the idea of a mayoral mandate and it’s not inherently absurd: who else can speak for the city if not the only guy in the room elected by the city as a whole?

Well, there’s council isn’t there? In fact, winning councillors collectively received substantially more votes than Rob Ford did (415,546 votes for this council as opposed to Ford’s 383,501) so if mandates spring from numbers, council can rightly claim a larger mandate than the Mayor.

There’s a more subtle form of representation that council has that simply doesn’t exist for the mayor’s office: namely, Rob Ford doesn’t really represent (or try to represent) the people who didn’t vote for him. If you’re a left-wing voter in Rob Ford’s Toronto, you’re basically out of luck in seeing anything come out of the Mayor’s office that you like. But when we vote for council, the city-wide effect means that even if you live in, say, Mike Del Grande’s ward you can root for someone like Glenn de Baeremaeker to represent Scarborough from the more left-wing position.

And that, basically, is the recipe for the situation we have right now: a formally powerful council that has had enough with the Mayor’s claim to speak for the city, and is in the process of taking charge. (The TTC is only the first step. Important committees like the Budget Committee will be next, I’m sure) But the Mayor still has the bully pulpit and the political fact of his individual city-wide mandate.

There’s a word for this in political science: a crisis of legitimacy.

The Perils of Presidentialism and Crises of Legitimacy

Let me get one thing out of the way right now. I am not saying that Rob Ford is an illegitimate mayor. I’m sure others have, but Rob Ford won an election and holds his office legitimately. It’s not clear that the election was entirely fair—Ford may yet be found guilty of having broken election finance laws—but that’s not relevant for the kind of legitimacy that I’m talking about now.

Rather, we have an inherent conflict between two competing claims of who gets to speak for Toronto as a whole: the Mayor, who was directly elected by the city at large, or the council which was elected collectively, but in 44 parts. This is exactly the kind of problem that is common in Presidential political systems. That is, systems that follow the American political model of a separately elected executive and legislative branch of government, as opposed to the British (and Canadian) model of Parliamentary governance where the executive is elected from within the legislature.

(The seminal text on how Presidential systems inherently lend themselves to legitimacy crises is “The Perils of Presidentialism” by Juan Linz, but the underlying issue has been a permanent concern in US politics. A 2001 article by Bruce Ackerman essentially says that the post-Charter Canadian system comes closest to a perfect fusion of crisis-free governance while protecting minorities, which is nice for us.)

A classic crisis of legitimacy goes something like this: President is elected on a new, perhaps radical, platform; legislature throws up roadblocks to his policies; crisis develops. It ends one of two ways: the President uses his powers to neuter the legislature (see Boris Yeltsin dissolving the Russian White House with tank shells) or the legislature neuters the President (not as many examples of this, though post-2004 Ukraine briefly looked like it might after the Orange Revolution). The crisis can only be resolved one way: the fundamental issue of who speaks for the electorate has to be settled.

In Russia, this was settled by putting enormous power in the hands of the President (even before the Putin era). In British systems the House of Commons is elected by the country, and whoever keeps the confidence of the House stays the Prime Minister. No more crises in either case because the issue is settled, though obviously most liberals would have other complaints about how Yeltsin settled the Russian legitimacy crisis.

Toronto’s legitimacy crisis

With the generic framework of a legitimacy crisis understood, we can see how it applies to Toronto and Rob Ford: this isn’t simply a case of a bullying politician unwilling to understand the limitations of his office, it’s a substantial structural flaw in the way we’ve built our government in this city. It’s as serious a defect as if we’d built an uneven foundation on a home. It’s an issue that will continue to dog Toronto City Council so long as the issue of who speaks for the city is left unsettled. What it isn’t is an individual problem with Rob Ford.

This crisis arguably began with transit when the mayor dismissed Transit City without a vote in council (a vote he would have almost certainly won, in one of Toronto’s enduring political mysteries), heightened when council had to take over the Port Lands file from Doug Ford’s blundering, was ratcheted further when the Mayor’s office refused to make a deal on the budget, and now we’re where we are on the transit file.

We’ve failed to understand that the status quo is actually the worst-case scenario: the transit fight that is brewing later this month is likely to decide something on Sheppard avenue that (a) will be won or lost on the narrowest of margins and (b) if council decides against a Sheppard subway extension, won’t have the support of most of Scarborough councillors, meaning that thanks to the crisis of legitimacy the argument won’t be settled and we’ll keep blundering through this fight until at least 2014.

But the crisis isn’t going to end later this month with transit. Every. Single. Decision. From here on out everything the city does is going to be decided on an absurd, ad hoc basis as the mayor attempts to win whatever votes he can by dangling something in front of one councillor or another. Toronto’s going to lurch from one battle to another as the two sides at council try to poach votes from the centre.

And in all the chaos, anyone who’s spent the last few years arguing that Toronto needs the political and financial tools to govern itself properly instead of as a ward of the province is going to die a little inside each day.

So what’s the fix?

We have basically two choices, and as an expert witness I’d like to call on Doug Ford, councillor for Ward 2. One option is to move further powers to the Mayor’s office, such as a veto over council, the hiring and firing of high-level city staff (despite recent events, the Mayor individually does not have this ability) and other powers—in short, the typical American strong-mayor system. Itself a more intense form of American presidentialism. Doug Ford endorsed exactly this idea early on in the new council’s term.

But Doug Ford also understands that the other way to have a system that allows a government to enact its mandate is the Parliamentary model, telling the Toronto Sun in February “When you have a clear mandate provincially, you have a team and you have a leader you get to move it forward”. Bringing a parliamentary system to council would be relatively simple, though at the moment it’s illegal under the City of Toronto Act. Simply have the Mayor elected by council from among its members. Whoever retains the loyalty of a majority of council is the mayor.

Either one of these ideas seems to horrify various elements of Toronto’s commentariat. We’ve always elected a Mayor! Except that the status quo can’t be self-justifying. As recently as 1997 the Mayor was vastly less powerful because he (or twice, she) presided over a smaller city, and until 2006 the mayor was less powerful because various laws said so. We’ve amalgamated a megacity of almost 3 million people and assumed that the same elected-mayor system we used to run a city of 100,000 was sufficient. We’ve also dramatically shrunk the number of elected representatives in this city, proportionally increasing the importance of the Mayor’s vote. Rob Ford has shown the flaws in the sysem, but if he loses in 2014 the system will still be flawed.

Between the two options of a strong presidential mayor or electing the mayor from within council—essentially, parliamentary government for the city—the parliamentary one is the much more preferable option. That’s because while both allow an elected government to pursue a legitimate mandate, only the Parliamentary option is better for whoever’s out of power at any given moment. I assume that will sound self-serving to Ford supporters but I imagine they’ll change their tune under Mayor Carroll or Mayor Vaughan.

Some of the obvious objections:

Q: Argh! I hate political parties and this is a recipe for that!

There’s no reason that this would inherently lead to formal political parties in Toronto. Electing the mayor from within council doesn’t mean that councillors would all have to join parties.

That said, the reality of the current system is that there are two well-defined political parties, and a third group of increasingly-left-leaning councillors in the middle. But instead of dealing with this maturely, provincial law forces the city to pretend that parties don’t exist in a formal sense. This is absurd and unsustainable. Toronto today is almost as populous as Canada was in 1867, and far more complex to govern than our young Dominion was. The idea that political parties can do an above-average job of governing this country and its provinces for 150 years but are going to run this city terribly just doesn’t make sense.

But if Rob Ford were leading the Conservative Party of Toronto, he’d rule the city with an iron fist until the next election!

Well no, for a bunch of reasons. The most important being that Rob Ford would have been unlikely to be chosen to lead any political party, as he had no friends on council until he started to lead in the polls in the summer of 2010. More than that, the incentives for councillors looking to be re-elected in 2014 don’t fundamentally change—indeed, it’s at least as plausible to say that if Ford were the leader of the Conservative caucus of Toronto he’d already be out of a job. If Maggie effing Thatcher can lose her job to a caucus revolt, why would you assume Rob Ford can maintain party solidarity? Because of the sterling political instincts he’s demonstrated so far?

But more importantly, this isn’t about Rob Ford. As I’ve tried to say over and over, this is a structural flaw in the system that Rob Ford has made obvious, not a flaw that’s going to be solved by removing Ford from his job.

Stupid lefty bilge. You weren’t saying this during Miller’s reign of terror!

Well no, I wasn’t. But that’s because (a) I didn’t live in this city during his first term; (b) like many of us, I wasn’t paying as much attention to city politics during the second Miller term until the 2009 strike; and (c) Miller never exposed these flaws to the same extent because he mostly had council behind him on the big stuff.

But some conservatives on council were arguing for the city to look at formal political parties. Karen Stintz, back when she was the shrill Miller-hating conservative of the left’s nightmares, told Toronto Life in 2008 that there were some good reasons for political parties:

One of the most common complaints about Toronto council is that it is a collection of 44 “ward bosses” who have no broader vision beyond what’s happening in their local neighbourhoods. Political parties are the simplest way to remedy that problem, because candidates would unite around a common platform for the city’s future. A party system could arguably make collaboration easier: the mayor, instead of negotiating with individual councillors for their support, could negotiate for whole blocs of support at once.

This is certainly how Stintz sees things. “I totally support parties,” she says. “Council is facing some difficult issues right now, and if the opposition were truly a party, we would have to confront those issues as a group. Right now, we can just walk away from them.” She points to Miller’s One Cent Now campaign as a perfect example. Once Ottawa reduced the GST to five per cent, Stintz believes the province should have taken up that tax room and handed it over to municipalities. “But I can’t work with the mayor on the issue, because our relationship is so toxic that we can’t have a normal conversation. And I can’t hold my own press conference because it appears like I’m just grandstanding. But if I were a party spokesperson on this issue, if I had legitimacy in that role before council and the media, then I could speak up.”

I know that for Toronto’s hardest-core right Stintz now exists as a non-person, but back when she was a Miller critic she was right about political parties at the municipal level. And the analysis is still right. (I don’t know if Stintz has changed her mind on political parties.) We no longer have a city, as John Matheson (another Tory!) said on TVO’s the Agenda this week, where a form of government suited for slight tweaks to the status quo can still operate. The challenges that face Toronto are large and they need a system that can function without lurching from crisis to crisis. We don’t have that system now, and I’m willing to bet we probably wouldn’t even if George Smitherman—himself, not really known for making friends and allies at Queen’s Park—had been elected.

Why can’t we just keep muddling through?

Well that’s always an option, and a very Canadian one at that. But we shouldn’t understimate the costs that come with the current government. There are literal dollar costs to this: millions of dollars might as well have been set alight thanks to the paralysis over transit in this city, millions of dollars that could have been better spent on trifles like feeding hungry children or keeping libraries open.

And then there’s the damage this crisis is doing to our politics: we have a mayor who, rather than admit he has no plan to raise the money needed for rapid transit in Scarborough, spends his days telling voters in Scarborough and Etobicoke that this is all about downtowners wanting to hog all the good subway lines to themselves. Rob Ford has already said he will run for re-election based on Scarborough being stabbed in the back by downtown elitists, further poisoning the well of Toronto’s civic discussion. It’s horrifyingly ugly, and it shouldn’t be happening. But it’s exactly what all of the political incentives tell Rob Ford, or any mayor in his position, to do—even if the man were perfect, and we don’t build our political institutions by first assuming every conservative will be David Crombie.

So: Responsible Government for Toronto, now.

One thought on “From the archives: Rob Ford, the TTC, and the crisis of legitimacy at Toronto City Hall

  1. Pingback: Resolving the Crisis of Legitimacy at Toronto City Hall | John Michael McGrath

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